Day 29: Laos in Lowell
Lowell is sort’ve on the way back from Boothsbay Harbor and a welcome opportunity for late afternoon Laotian lunch at Phien’s Kitchen on day 29 of the 30 day ethnic food challenge. Chef Phien Nokham likes to say she “communicates through her cooking” and I hear her. The small comfortable restaurant on the first floor of a house is known for turning out a fine concise authentic menu of Laotian classic dishes. In the neat dining room a place for offerings features minature woven fish traps and chicken coops, a clue to the agrarian culture influenced by neighbors and colonials born out in an outstanding cuisine.
Right out of the kitchen gate and the Lao wooden mortar comes Thum Markhoong. The Papaya Salad driven by a spicy dressing that includes plaa raa (fermented fish paste) and served with cooling green cabbage is spot on. On its own the pungent paste could clear a room but employed in concert with lime, garlic and chili, the julienne of green papaya and cherry tomatoes ring lightly on the tongue. Served with Kao Neow (sticky glutinous rice) in the traditional woven sticky rice cylinder, one makes little rice balls to get at the salad’s tangy liquor.
The beverage is a Laos iced coffee with a charred java taste and plenty of condensed milk on top like some caffeinated tequila sunrise. The sweet and strong cold brew plays well against the big Southeast Asian flavors. Phien’s Kitchen is also one of the few places to get Sai Oua Duo Mai. The fermented pork and rice sausage is grilled to perfection and has a tangy ring of its own. All the portions at Phien’s are huge so order accordingly. But by all means don’t overlook the Peng see-Nam Tok-gao bee Beef. Nam Tok (waterfall) is so named after the Pavlovian sound it makes while cooking. The tender ribbons are all about the taste of beefy fire and showered with cilantro and mint has a sweet and spicy simplicity. Lao people like bitter elements to contrast the sweet and sour and a sour dipping sauce is served on the side. A spoon (all you need) is provided as well as chopsticks for the excellent noodle soups Phien can conjure. Peng leen, a beef tongue dish will have to wait til next time.
Two new spoons and purple sticky rice with egg custard and sweet coconut milk is the big finish. Rich with crusty edges the rice is almost pastry like. This was luscious. I was sent to Phien’s Kitchen, once again, by those wise in the ways of lunch and they did not steer me wrong. In Laotian the word for delicious is “Sep”. In Lowell, it’s Phien’s Kitchen.
586 Westford St, Lowell, MA 01851